Like a Mexican

by Paula Morris / 03 January, 2004

The night I meet Carlos, I'm at the SoHo Grand with some of my colleagues after work. We're lolling on a low banquette when he walks in with Rico. They pull up chairs and order drinks.

Rico is an A&R scout working in our Mexico City branch, and he often comes up to New York to play us tapes. Tonight he's wearing the usual record company uniform of T-shirt and jeans. Carlos wears a dark suit and tie. Rico introduces me, says that I'm English, says that I work in International. Carlos, he says, is an old friend, a vice-president at a bank here in New York.

I have to leave right away, to hear a band playing at the Mercury Lounge. Afterwards, I catch a cab to El Teddy's. Mitchell, my boss, is already there, pacing around a crowded table, talking on his cellphone. A tall, blonde woman in a black bustier arrives. She kisses Mitchell three times, and wants to know everybody's name and job title. A chubby boy in a baseball cap shuffles in behind her. The blonde woman pushes him into the seat next to me.

"This," she says, "is DJ Jeffy."

"May I call you Jeff?" I ask him. He looks like the intern we just got for the summer.

"His name is DJ Jeffy," calls the blonde woman, walking off to the bathroom, arm-in-arm with Mitchell.

By the time our food arrives, our party has spread to another two tables. We're still eating when Rico and Carlos walk up the stairs. Carlos comes straight over to me and crouches next to my chair.

"I was hoping you'd be here," he says to me in a low voice. There's something impatient about the way he speaks. He's stuffed his tie into his jacket pocket; a striped roll of silk bubbles out. "I wanted to meet you, to talk to you. But I can't stay right now. Will you have lunch with me next week?"

He smiles at me. His teeth are small and white.

"Yes, well. Okay." I smile back at him. He pulls out a business card and asks me for mine.

When Carlos and Rico leave, Veronica Dietz from Corporate Communications winks at me.

"I think he's married," she whispers.

"Really?" I turn to my left. "Are you married, DJ Jeffy?"

"I meant the Mexican," she says, scowling at the waiter telling everyone they have to smoke at the bar.

I catch a cab to the restaurant, even though it would be almost as quick to walk, feeling nervous and excited. Carlos is a Mexican banker who wears a suit to work and eats lunch in the East 50s: this makes him an international man of mystery. I'm wearing a low-cut blouse, a pencil skirt and high heels. Everyone's been telling me all morning that I look great. But it's a world away from Times Square here in the East 50s, and I'm the only person in the restaurant not wearing a suit.

Carlos is sitting at a table near the back, thrumming the rim of his glass. He's almost a cartoon of a man, dark and square and muscular.

"You're English and you're beautiful, that's all I know," he says. He wants me to order the sea bass and have a glass of wine and tell him everything. My face flushes, because I'm talking about myself, and drinking red wine at lunchtime.

Carlos was transferred here from Mexico City a few months ago. He's known Rico all his life.

"You don't look like a Mexican," I tell him. "Not that I really know what Mexicans look like. Except for Benicio Del Toro. He's pretty cute."

"He's from Puerto Rico," says Carlos, grinning. "And I'm not really a Mexican, you know. Both my parents were born in Spain. So I'm Euro-trash, really."

"And you're married," I say.

"Yes." He doesn't seem surprised that I know.

"What does your wife think about you asking other women out to lunch?"

"Look," he says, brushing one hand over mine, like he's dusting a cobweb away. "My wife and I are separating."

"I'm sorry."

"She wants to have a child, and I don't. It's not a good situation, but we don't have to talk about it today."

We leave the restaurant and Carlos walks west with me. We're passing a side doorway of the Plaza Hotel when he grabs my hand and pulls me up the steps.

"Come here," he says. He pins me against the wall and kisses me on the mouth, around the mouth, in the mouth. It's one hell of a kiss - passionate and invasive. One minute we're walking along the street; the next we're suctioned to each other. I shut my eyes and try to forget things like doorway and public place and married man.

Then suddenly, this rude, flagrant kiss ends and Carlos is waving goodbye to me. I get back to work feeling giddy and hot, and shut my office door, try to steady my breathing. The kiss was better than records, better than drugs, better than vodka.

Mitchell barges in without knocking, waving a stubby cigar around. He wants to know if I've been over to Sony for an interview. He can't think why else I'd be this dressed up.

Several days and numerous telephone calls later, Carlos and I meet for dinner at Gotham.

We sit on high stools, close together, at the bar. Carlos strokes my arm and the back of my neck. He tells me how desperate he is to see me, how he thinks about me all the time.

Carlos has his hand on my knee after the first drink; two drinks later, we're making out. I'm wearing a wrap-around dress that falls open a little, and he draws his fingers up and down my inner thigh.

"The night I met you, at the SoHo Grand, I could see your underwear every time you crossed your legs," Carlos says. "There were these little flowers over your panties."

"I don't have any floral underwear." I swallow the dregs of my martini. "You must be thinking of someone else."

"There's no one else." Carlos sounds hurt. "There's only you." He gives me a broad, curvy smile and I slump towards him, my mouth mashing his. He tastes like salt and cigarettes. It's the most delicious taste in the world.

Carlos and I begin meeting up every few days at bars where we won't bump into colleagues. After three weeks, we've been out together eight times and had sex five of those times.

We talk obsessively about every time we've been out together, every conversation we've had. We're greedy for each other. We like the Marx Brothers and anchovies. We don't like Pernod or the Dutch. He describes Mexico City and says he wants to take me there. I describe London, although he's already been. We announce things: I miss you, I need you, I love you. It doesn't feel like an affair. It feels like we've invented each other. It feels like we've never been in love before.

Carlos's wife persuades him to visit a therapist on East 57th Street. At the end of the first session, the therapist asks to see Carlos by himself.

"She asked me if I was having an affair," he says. He's calling me from his office, as usual. "I said I was in love with an English woman, and she said she could tell."

"She could tell I was English?"

"That there was another woman."

He says he has to keep going to marriage counselling, even though he's not in love with his wife any more. He owes it to Valeria, and to his family, he says. They had a huge wedding. Eight hundred people, six different bands. They even had fireworks.

"A divorce will be a big deal," he says. "Everyone will be angry with me again."

I open my mouth to ask him what "again" means, but suddenly Mitchell's in my doorway, screaming at me to come and watch the rough cut of a video. One of the dancers is too fat.

"Can't we stretch her?" I ask.

"If we stretched her from here to Acapulco, she'd still look fat." Mitchell's face is so red it looks sunburnt. "I don't want all of Kenny Ortega's fat Mexican relations in the video!"

"You know, I think Kenny Ortega's from Palo Alto," I say, and tell Carlos that I'll call him back later.

When I do, he's been speaking to Rico. He's told Rico about our relationship. Rico disapproves.

One evening after we make love at my apartment, Carlos finishes getting dressed in the bathroom. He straightens his tie in the mirror. He's supposed to be at a business dinner.

"Remember when we had lunch together that first time?" he calls. "You looked so beautiful. Though I thought you would have dressed up more."

"I was dressed up!"

"I thought you would wear something really special." He sounds petulant.

"I don't live in your world, you know," I tell him. "I don't work in bloody international finance. I can wear a bikini to the office if I feel like it."

Carlos blows me a kiss from the bathroom door.

After he leaves, I run a hot bath and lie there with my eyes shut until the water turns lukewarm. My tongue is tired. My stomach muscles hurt. When we see each other, it's like a round of a boxing match: short, intense and violent. Carlos keeps saying that he's separating, but every week he goes with his wife to see the therapist. He may have separated in his head, but his body is still married and living on 71st Street.

Carlos and his wife are going home to Mexico City for the weekend, but she's leaving a day early. He wants me to come to his apartment that evening.

His apartment is not only on 71st Street: it's just off Fifth Avenue. The floor in the lobby is marble, and the building looks like it used to be an embassy. Carlos's apartment isn't especially big, but there's a subdued elegance to it. Everything's muted: books, paintings, furniture. The only strong colour is the green of the park, visible through the living-room window.

We lie twisted together in bed, singing snatches of old standards. When Carlos sings "If I Loved You", I tell him he looks like Gordon MacRae. He smacks little-boy kisses all over my face.

When I suggest he change the sheets before he leaves tomorrow, Carlos looks at me like I'm crazy.

"She would get suspicious if she saw sheets in the hamper," he says.

"Why don't you just wash the sheets yourself?"

"I never wash sheets. She knows that. The housekeeper comes once a week; she washes the sheets."

"Well, what day does the housekeeper come?"

Carlos has no idea.

I walk into the small bathroom to take a shower. It looks bare, as though all the soaps and bottles and lotions have been removed. Draped over the towel rail is a silky mushroom-coloured bra. It's smaller and flimsier than anything I would wear. Suddenly Valeria is a person, real and vulnerable, reduced to this limp, left-behind object. I draw one finger down the skinny strap. She's probably a petite person, as thin and delicate as the bra. Perhaps she has an anxious expression: it's only two years since her big expensive wedding, after all, and her husband wants to leave her.

And suddenly I'm just a stranger standing naked in another woman's bathroom, stroking her silky mushroom-coloured bra, sleeping with her husband.

I tell Carlos that I don't think I should stay the night, and he doesn't seem to mind.

Mitchell announces that he's tired of being out of the office all the time and that I have to pick up some of the slack. This means that he doesn't want to go to the West Coast. Mitchell always gets tired of travelling when it doesn't involve Europe or Bangkok.

In Los Angeles, I meet up with Rico at the House of Blues to hear a Mexican ska band. Afterwards we go back to my hotel and order vodka martinis by the pool. I tell him that I love Carlos.

"No," he groans. "It's just an affair."

"A love affair, Rico. But I think we should stop seeing each other for a while." I don't know why I'm saying this. "Until he and Valeria separate."

"If," says Rico. He lights a cigarette and flicks the match onto the ground. "Look, forget Carlos. I know him better than anyone, so you should listen to me. He's a fool."

"And I'm a fool, too. I miss him terribly."

"Don't miss him," he says. "He's just a Mexican. Like the guys who work in McDonald's."

"You're a Mexican!"

"I'm serious. Every time you miss Carlos, remember that. Mexicans work at McDonald's. Mexicans clean hotel rooms. Mexicans sell oranges on the street."

"You're ridiculous." I inhale a mouthful of vodka.

"Listen to me. You don't want to fall in love with a Mexican."

"Whatever you say."

We clink our glasses, and drink to not falling in love with Mexicans.

I get the flu soon after my return from LA. Carlos says he's desperate to see me, so he comes over to my apartment. When he rings the bell, I answer the door wearing my robe, a flaking tissue pressed to my nose. Carlos stands in the hallway clutching a towering bunch of red and pink roses.

Everything overwhelms me: the flowers, the sight of him, the aching in my joints. In bed, I prop myself against the ridged board of his body. Carlos tells me how much he loves me, right before he looks at his watch and says he has to go: Valeria has invited friends over to dinner, and he's going to be late. His visit lasts barely over an hour.

The roses are beautiful. Their stems are two feet long. Nobody's ever given me this many roses before, not even Mitchell. He sent me two dozen after I procured a prostitute for Big Daddy V at the conference in Rome. Really, it was the concierge who got the prostitute, but I deserved the roses. Big Daddy V followed me around for days, asking if he could get AIDS from a blow job.

The following week, we meet for a drink after work, and Carlos tells me we have to stop seeing each other for a while. Rico and his therapist are badgering him.

"I really have to give my marriage a chance," he says, moving coasters around the table with one finger.

I nod, and try to act like I saw this coming.

He has a story to tell me. For three years, he went out with a girl called Julietta. Everyone thought they'd get married. But Julietta was killed in a car accident. He didn't hear the news for almost two days, because nobody could find him. He was away on the coast with another woman.

"Everyone knew," he says. "They were all angry with me. They were trying to arrange the funeral, but they couldn't find me."

Valeria, Julietta's best friend, was more angry than anyone else.

"She didn't want to forgive me," he says. "But eventually, we became friends again, and then more than friends. I think she felt sorry for me. Nobody could forget this bad thing I'd done."

"And that's why you got married?"

"We were good together, good friends. And I was 35; it was time. I thought I'd grown out of all this being in love stuff." He gives me a rueful smile.

"Is that what it means to grow up?"

"I don't know." He peers into his glass, tilting the dregs from left to right. "Perhaps there's something wrong with me: I'm not happy being married, and I'm not happy being in love."

"You've made me happy," I say.

He leans forwards and grips my hands between his.

"Tell me you'll wait," he says. "Tell me you won't have children with anyone else. Promise me."

It's a ridiculous thing to promise, but he won't let me leave until I do. We kiss goodbye, one last time, in the street.

Several times over the next few weeks, late at night, I call Carlos's voicemail at the office and listen to his message. I feel miserable. I cry a lot. I even write a bad poem with lines like "streets littered with oblivious kisses" and "a summer scored with goodbyes".

I try to avoid anything to do with Mexico, but Mexico is everywhere. Advertisements for Puerto Vallarta in a magazine; a Frida Kahlo exhibition at MOMA. Bottles of tequila and Mexican flags everywhere I look. Mexicans working in McDonald's. In the New Year, I get a new job back in London. There are almost no Mexicans in London. All the low-paid restaurant workers are European teenagers who need more money for nightclubbing and drugs.

On a drizzly day, almost a year after I move back to London, I'm in the back of a taxi driving along the Hammersmith fly-over, watching the rain dribble down the window. The taxi drives past a huge billboard with a picture of a grinning brown-skinned man. He's wearing a poncho and a sombrero, and he's holding a giant tequila bottle, its label painted the colours of the Mexican flag.

Although I try not to think about him, I still miss Carlos. So I smile up at the Mexican man on the billboard and blow him a kiss. He looks very happy. Maybe he's just been to a big wedding, and heard a lot of music, and seen a lot of fireworks, though I doubt it, somehow. He'd never get in wearing that poncho. Really, he looks like he works in McDonald's. He looks like he sells oranges on the street.

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